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Community Colleges Provide Second Chance

Rick Green

July 28, 2009

Skip McCarthy spent 19 years on the job before he was laid off last year.

"I worked in a warehouse," McCarthy, a father of two from East Windsor, told me. "I'm thinking what the hell do I do?"

It's a desperate question tens of thousands of state residents, once securely employed, are now struggling with. The answer McCarthy found at a community college is a lesson for the entire state as Connecticut struggles to maintain a skilled workforce.

McCarthy, 42, could be a metaphor for our future. He's older and wants to stay in Connecticut. He's a hard worker, but needs the skills to match what Connecticut companies need.

Later this year, McCarthy will graduate from a special manufacturing technology training program at Asnuntuck Community College in Enfield. Graduates typically earn between $45,000 and $65,000 within six months of completing the program.

McCarthy fits well into President Barack Obama's vision for revamping and expanding community colleges, the underappreciated spawning ground for the American workforce. Obama wants to put $12 billion into community colleges, modernizing campuses and rewarding schools that set up partnerships with the businesses that need trained workers.

Obama might want to start by looking at Asnuntuck, part of the state's bursting-at-the-seams community college system, where enrollment is up 25 percent this year.

When I stopped by Asnuntuck President Martha McLeod's office the other day, she could barely contain herself with excitement over the Obama plan.

McLeod was refreshingly blunt about what's happening. Without a workforce trained in the skills that manufacturers and businesses need, industry will leave. That means we must invest in programs to train workers for the jobs that are out there. If only Gov. Rell and Democrats in the legislature understood this as well.

"The key to a good community college is listening to your community and listening to the business community that's going to employ your students," McLeod said, telling me about the medical device manufacturers, the aerospace industry and even veterinarians who are all desperate for skilled workers.

"Do you know what an electron beam welder makes?" McLeod asked, before telling me about a scholarship program in which industries pay the bill for students studying for skilled manufacturing jobs. "People are coming to us and expecting us to make it possible for them to become economically independent people. These people have never been in a position where they can't pay the bills."

McLeod introduced me to Tammy Foss of Ellington, a 45-year-old woman who lost her job at a pharmacy and, like McCarthy, "never thought about going to school."

She's now training to be a medical assistant. "I've worked every day of my life since I was 18 years old," Foss said. "I was very grateful for this program."

The payoff for all of us is obvious: Both Foss and McCarthy will soon be collecting paychecks and paying taxes. The companies that employ them will remain in business.

McLeod brought me to the manufacturing technology center, where McCarthy and other students were training on computerized machines, and to the welding room, where program director Steve Goodrow told me that any student who works hard and learns the craft, "I can place." The average welder makes $60,000 a year.

A year ago McCarthy had never touched one of the sophisticated machines. He was an unemployed warehouseman at a dead end. Now he's aiming for a midlife career as a machinist.

Before, "if somebody had asked me about going back to school, I'd have said it's not even an idea," he said. "Not even a thought."

McCarthy thinks about it all the time now. We can all learn from his experience.

Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant. To view other stories on this topic, search the Hartford Courant Archives at http://www.courant.com/archives.
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